I should have known the mark he would leave on me.
It’s handy when your boyfriend’s uncle is a highly-regarded orthopaedic surgeon and you’ve just returned from your first snowboard trip in the Rockies where you tried to be cool, but only ended up with a fractured arm. When the cast was ready to come off, however, he unintentionally knicked my wrist. Not much, but enough to leave a scar. I never thought I would love that scar. But things are different now.
Not many years later, David and I married and moved to the west coast. The money seemed to have up and left too, because graduate school living rang up the memories of my childhood, replacing the food bank line apprehension with that of loan approvals. The similarity that scared me most was borrowing from family, something I hoped never to repeat. But through the bills and the tears, popped an email. Like his previous messages and phone calls, uncle Warren sent us a timely encouragement quoting Jeremiah 29: 11. We printed it out and taped it to our bathroom mirror, where it stayed for the next two years. I had forgotten about that email until recently. But not ever again. Because things are different now.
And so we grew up a bit more at each crossing with him. He looked us in the eye. He took on our desperate parenting medical queries mostly seriously (and the rest with a good laugh). He sat with me one late afternoon when I was crying through another day of PPD while my husband was working. He saw my heartbroken tears and told me God was with me. I didn’t believe him then, truthfully. But things are different now.
It had been 14 years since I’d met him. And then, 14 months of cancer treatment seemed to vanish when all of a sudden, we were listening to his whispered ‘I love you’s’ from his bed as we held his hand. Our four teeny lives were amongst the scores of people arriving daily to pay respects, evidence of not only his life but the love of his wife, who welcomed each. and. every. one.
We said hello to say goodbye. We ate Canadian Thanksgiving in sombre solidarity with the rest of the family. And then we kept to ourselves for a few days. We couldn’t burden ourselves on his kids and wife to spend more time with him. That was for them to have.
And this is where I get stuck in this story every time.
Because he was more than just ‘my husband’s uncle’ but it’s hard to admit how much you love someone who isn’t your blood relative. Being abandoned by every caregiver I’ve ever had makes my circle of security infinitely small. But he was in it. And yet, I never referred to him as ‘my’ uncle because I didn’t feel that was mine to claim. And too vulnerable a place to be. But things are different now.
A few days later, he was in palliative care and we were trying to avoid the hurt we knew was coming. But I wanted to see him. Truthfully, it felt selfish, given that his wife and children would bear the true burden of his death and they would need this time with him. But something felt urgent. I couldn’t explain the flutter in my body away. And so I made some mental arrangements for a daytime visit following my morning in private practice. But then my booking for the day grew inexplicably. More imaginary alterations made in vain, as not only had my day increased, but it went overtime. The frustrating disappointment only deepened after picking up my boys late from school, followed by unusual crawling traffic. By the time we made it home, I had given up. I just wanted to go to bed. After so many obstacles, clearly I wasn’t meant to see him again. Hiding my face from my boys, I both sulked and sobbed while trying to prepare dinner. It wasn’t pretty. But David saw through it all. “If you really feel like you need go, go late. There’s no visiting hours and hardly anyone will be there,” giving my heart a hug as he pulled me in. Emotionally raw but willing to try again, by dark my car was once again in the city, and I was finding my way to a place I’d never been before. Figuratively and literally.
Almost running, the rushing in my heart had only increased the closer I got. Short of emotional breath, the quiet hum of machines and nurse chatter heightened my senses. Turning in to his room, I burst into tears as his wife kissed his unresponsive face goodnight, promising her return in the morning. Her sisters had been with her and all of them were making their way home. A nurse who worked with Warren for decades had volunteered to be with him that night. She graciously whispered she’d be in the family room down the hall for a while.
I still didn’t understand the necessity in my own limbs but felt better folding my body into the chair at his bedside. Not knowing what to say, I pulled out my Bible, intending to read silently. But then I remembered his email. Flipping furiously, I found the passage and began reading aloud, my fingers shaking. I didn’t get five words in before my voice cracked and the tears rolled. I restarted. Eight words. More grimacing to stifle a fresh wave. Ten words. Twelve words. Fourteen words. Until thirty minutes had passed when I was able to read it one time through without stopping.
“As soon as …. years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out – plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.”
Jeremiah 29: 10-11 MSG
I left Warren’s side at 11pm. And when I heard the phone ring too early the next morning, I had immediate clarity on the day before. And knew before I picked up the phone. He had died overnight. I was overwhelmed. Because I felt a bit like I was one of his emails, arriving at just the appointed time, back to him. And had I been there during the day, like I wanted, and with so many others around, I would never have been able to repay him.
People have told me this was a gift to me. But it’s been over a month and haven’t been able to accept it. Who am I that I should be the last family member with him? Of the 1400 people who attended his funeral, of all the people he knew and loved, why was that reserved for me? Guilt has torn at my heart. That this isn’t even my story. It’s their story and I’m just the in-law who got a glimpse of what God looks like in family.
See, I learned to earn affirmation growing up. And this gave me reason to withdraw trust in more than one relationship and watch resentment carry over into more and more of them. Though seemingly justified, I’ve made too many mistakes with my mom. With my step dad. With my sons and inlaws and friends. And so in my looking for God, shouldn’t I enter by the servant’s door? Like the prodigal child, I can work for my keep. But how can I be so sure God will let me find Him? Warren’s death has not only broken my heart, but also the walls around it.
As we waited the week out for his funeral, it was like I was seeing my life for the first time. My son drew for his cousins, with a box in the ground, yes, but also a rainbow and above all, the shining sun. The faith of a child that had me standing above him to get a picture, but not wanting to get down, because it made me that much closer to heaven too. I swayed on that stool for a long time, reaching as high as I could, tears falling on to the paper below. A few days later, we got out of the house to distract ourselves and we ended up a few places we never intended on. I got lost and made a giant circle on 10 kms of dirt road. But then. This. The railway was Warren’s passion and this was the day we were gathering to tell stories about his life. One thing is for sure: I keep getting to places but not how or when I wanted. Clearly, it isn’t in knowing the way, but being willing to go.
And so, I’m in the thick of it, friends. He fascinates me and though I don’t understand Him, I will trust Him. That He sees me whole. That He takes delight in me. That He makes my shame undone.
And that even if He does not, still I will hold on to Him. Because although I can’t explain God in all the hard questions, the only thing I know is that I need Him.
In the final attempt that night, I read verse 12 to Warren too, promising him out loud that I would seek to know God as he did. That I would lock eyes with Him. That I would see His love as nothing to do with earning and everything to do with inheritance already accounted for. Because things are different now.
“When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.”
Jeremiah 29:12 MSG